South Carolina’s state senate approved an anti-abortion bill on Tuesday that would ban most abortions at about six weeks, a period when most people are unaware they are pregnant.
During a special session to decide whether the bill advances to the governor, who has promised to sign it, the Republican-controlled senate launched into a heated debate over the ban.
The Fetal Heartbeat and Protection From Abortion Act would ban abortions at the earliest detection of cardiac activity, and, if signed into law, would set up a judicial battle over whether the bill is constitutional. The bill already passed the state house legislature with overwhelming support, and is part of a wave of anti-abortion legislation passed or proposed throughout the country since the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade last year and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion.
Abortion access in the south – which already has some of the most restrictive laws in the country – has been dramatically curtailed with new legislation in North Carolina and Florida. A series of Texas laws prohibit abortions after six weeks and make performing abortions a felony punishable up to life in prison.
A group of female lawmakers, known as the “sister senators”, opposed the bill during the special session. The five senators, who are the only female lawmakers out of the 46-seat senate, previously blocked a bill in April that would have banned abortion at conception. On Tuesday, one member of the group offered an amended version of the House bill that would instead restrict abortion at 12 weeks and allow up to 20 weeks for cases of rape and incest.
The Republican state senator Katrina Shealy proposed the amendment to the bill, which she called “a real compromise”, and implored lawmakers to consider the implications of the legislation that they were considering.
“Don’t force women into making a decision in six weeks for something they may not even know that’s happening,” Shealy said.
“All of you listening to me that have daughters and granddaughters … I want you to stop and think about the laws that you’re making for their future. Have you talked to them?” Shealy said. “Why don’t you ask them how they feel about having the state of Carolina in their bedroom, at their dining table, in the doctor’s office and in the labor room with them?”
In response to Shealy’s speech, the state senator Richard Cash alleged that her amendment would change the bill to “abortion on demand” for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and claimed “babies begin with the union of the sperm and ovum – that’s how God designed it”.
The Republican Sandy Senn, another member of the “sister senators”, alleged that the state Senate majority leader Shane Massey was downplaying the severity of the bill that the House passed.
Senn also noted that during a previous session another lawmaker had suggested that a minor does not need an abortion and instead just needs support to raise a baby.
“It’s just a total lack of empathy,” Senn said, “and then you wonder why we’re mad.”
South Carolina Republicans, who control the state house, senate and governor’s office, have debated exactly what legislative restrictions should be placed on abortion. House Republicans changed a bill they passed earlier this month to remove a section that would have allowed minors to seek legal permission for abortion access until the 12th week of pregnancy.
South Carolina allowed abortions until 22 weeks into a pregnancy, but the new law will sharply curtail abortion access in the state. A South Carolina supreme court ruling in January struck down a previous six-week abortion ban, but since then the makeup of the court has changed, with its sole female justice retiring after writing the lead opinion in the case. She was replaced by a man in what is now the country’s only all-male state supreme court.
One of the groups behind South Carolina’s anti-abortion push is the Freedom Caucus, a far-right coalition of legislators that formed last year and has advocated for extreme restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming care. Earlier this year one member of the Freedom Caucus proposed a bill that would have made people who decide to have an abortion liable to face the death penalty.
South Carolina is one of only two states where legislators are the sole body that selects justices, and ProPublica reported that the Freedom Caucus rallied around the male candidate for state supreme court earlier this year despite the two female candidates having served longer on the second-highest court.
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